Debate on the Address

Part of Sessional Orders – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 28th October 1958.

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Photo of Hon. Patrick Maitland Hon. Patrick Maitland , Lanark 12:00 am, 28th October 1958

I shall return later to the allusions to education that we have heard in the speech of the hon. Member for Wrexham (Mr. Idwal Jones). I was struck by the relevance to what he was saying of a remark made by his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes), who said that the worst feature of the Gracious Speech this year was its failure to look inwards at the nation. The speech of the hon. Member for Wrexham to which we have been listening with great interest was an example of looking inwards. We heard about the educational problems not only of his part of the world but of the country in general, and we heard him say, in particular, that, unless special employment opportunities were found, prepared or created in these islands, the Teddy boy would continue to be a problem. I believe that the Speech from the Throne today is the best we have had in this Parliament, for the very reason that it puts the Commonwealth first and is outward-looking—among other things to expanding employment opportunities oversea—and I shall devote my remarks primarily to that Commonwealth aspect of it.

A study of the three previous Speeches from the Throne shows a changing estimate of priorities in the Government's mind. In 1955 it began, very naturally, with an allusion to the then railway crisis. But it followed that by references to the United Nations, to N.A.T.O., Western European Union, the United States, the Soviet Union and then disarmament, before there was one word about the Commonwealth. Even then the allusion to the Commonwealth was altogether perfunctory. In 1956, the Government, I am glad to say, did respond to suggestions made in various quarters, but we still found that the Commonwealth was put in second place, or even third place, in their statement of their approach to the affairs of the nation at that time. The same was true, although to a lesser degree, in 1957.

But the Gracious Speech today puts the Commonwealth first, does so emphatically and, what is more, gives us a clue to the Government's attitude toward the Commonwealth. We have the clue in the sentence which says that it is "in the spirit" of the Montreal Conference that Britain will seek to promote the closest co-operation within the Commonwealth. Furthermore, we are told that the Government propose to pursue that objective in the belief that the Commonwealth has a unique contribution to make to the progress of human society. The spirit of Montreal was admirably defined in paragraph (2) of its final act, which said that the Commonwealth's needs call for close collaboration both between themselves"— that is, Commonwealth countries— and with other likeminded countries. It went on to say: For these reasons the central theme…at Montreal has been an expanding Commonwealth in an expanding world", the implications of which in economics, finance and trade the Conference had been studying.

It is a theme which recalls most adroitly a sentiment uttered by Her Gracious Majesty the Sovereign and the Head of the Commonwealth in her Christmas broadcast in 1956. She then told the 660 million citizens of the Commonwealth, who, as we were reminded at Montreal, occupy no less than 12 million square miles of the earth's land surface: I believe that the way in which our Commonwealth is developing represents one of the most hopeful and imaginative experiments in international affairs that the world has ever seen. Those words give point also to a most interesting, stimulating and fecund allusion made by my right hon. Friend the Colonial Secretary in a speech on 10th October, from which I shall quote verbatim, because it is to the advantage of us all that his words should be recorded in HANSARD. My right hon. Friend the Colonial Secretary that day said: It does not seem to me impossible to add, as it were, relations-in-law to the family group of the Commonwealth. At some future date, other sovereign powers may wish for a closer bond than partial inter-dependence with the Commonwealth, and I feel that it might not be impossible to satisfy them without disadvantage for the family as a whole. He went on to say: If this ever becomes more than a dream, we shall have provided the world with what it so desperately wants—a union of nations bound by a common ethic to protect its weaker members and prepared to sink self-interest for the common weal. Those words and that sentiment are reflected in the words of the Gracious Speech: It is their firm belief that the Commonwealth has a unique contribution to make to the progress of human society". The question which we as Parliamentarians must consider is how the United Kingdom Government and its partner Governments in the Commonwealth will make good the decisions and the resolutions of principle made at Montreal. If one studies the final act of that Conference, to which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made a special reference in his speech today, one finds that the decisions were really of two kinds, what I might call hard-and-fast decisions—some of them, no doubt, taken beforehand—and resolutions or agreements of general principle on obligations which all Commonwealth countries recognised that they had towards one another. As such, the final act of Montreal was a kind of credo of Commonwealth purpose the like of which there has not been hitherto.

How are we all to make sure that the eleven or twelve sovereign Governments of the Commonwealth which subscribed to those purposes do live up to their pledges and deliver to us, every one of the 660 million Commonwealth citizens, what they have promised? There is at present no regular Parliamentary forum for the Commonwealth as a whole which would enable us, as we do in this House, to chivy, badger, question and probe Ministers or Governments to find out what is going on and, as it were, demand an answer.

The organisation and system of the Commonwealth can make a unique contribution to human society. But one of its most urgent needs is an annual conference of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association which could perform the function—let us say, in a debate on the Montreal final act—of a Parliament where delegates from all the countries of the Commonwealth could nag, chivy and question Government representatives. Some of my hon. Friends opposite—I call hon. Gentlemen opposite my hon. Friends, because I have very great respect for many of them—some of my hon. Friends from this side, and Parliamentarians from other countries, would be able to chivy and question our Commonwealth Governments and, no doubt, at times address them in language of "Elizabethan" candour which would occasionally bring a laggard Government to action.

We already have such a conference every two years. I do not believe that to hold such a Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference annually would cost more than £100,000 on each occasion. If this annual conference had a steady delegation from each of the main Commonwealth Parliaments, there would be a sense of continuity. The annual conference would be welcome everywhere. If the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation has its own annual assembly, if the Council of Europe has its own Assembly more frequently still, surely it is time that this grouping of nations, the Commonwealth, on which we rightly pin our major hopes, should have no less.

Many of us are gratified—I certainly am—at the decision in Montreal, at last, to establish, after many years of pressure and argument, a Commonwealth Consultative Economic Council, even though, in accord with Commonwealth tradition, it is largely a confirmation post facto of what has grown up, I regard that decision as a great triumph, particularly for Australia and New Zealand, which have clamoured for it for 35 years, but also for the foresight of our own Government who obviously threw their weight behind the proposal. Merely because Commonwealth decisions of that scale and magnificence represent a legal and formal confirmation of what has been growing all the while—that was true of the Statute of Westminster—there is no reason why things should not be built on it, just as things have been built on the Statute at Westminster itself.

Therefore, I believe that before this debate it over we are entitled to ask the Government, and to receive an indication of their view, what this Economic Consultative Council will be and what it will do. Will it merely be an organisation that meets from time to time ad hoc, or will it be a continuing organisation, perhaps on the lines of the Colombo Plan Bureau, with a chairman, or preferably a secretary-general—perhaps of the skill and calibre of M. Spaak—who as secretary-general can take an initiative in Commonwealth activities? That is certainly what some of us are hoping for. We are given little indication in the final act of Montreal whether that is the purpose. The only clue we have is that the Commonwealth Economic Council will play a major part and furnish the secretariat. We want to know a little more about it. It is legitimate to ask whether the Commonwealth Economic Council is sufficient as a model.

We are told that there is to be a Commonwealth house in London to provide a roof for this organisation. The suggestion is current that other Commonwealth countries might also build similar Commonwealth houses in their capitals. First, I want to hear something of the Government's ideas about the Commonwealth house in London. Will the organisation take over a fairly old building—Marlborough House comes to mind—which is cramped in its quarters but beautified with many historical and agreeable traditions, or will we be bold and pick a really important site on, for example, the South Bank, from which can be seen St. Paul's Cathedral and the Houses of Parliament, but at the same time something modern and imaginative, and engage a first-class architect of the new age and show that when we do something for the Commonwealth we are doing something for tomorrow and not for times gone by?

I was much intrigued and encouraged by the Commonwealth scholarship scheme announced at Montreal in which I think I can fairly and honestly say that discern the hand and mark of the Secre- tary of State for Commonwealth Relations, whose conduct of Commonwealth relations has grown to a stature and effectiveness that has impressed all of us, particularly in his diplomacy. He preceded me in the honour of representing the constituency of Lanark. I was particularly pleased to see that it was made clear at Montreal that these 1,000 scholarships, which provide for the interchange of Commonwealth advanced students, shall not only be in the field of science and technology but also in the field of the humanities, and will exist not only for enabling people to get a university degree but will provide fitting rewards for serious studies in the humanities.

Here I am reminded of a foreign statesman who complained that his country had been beaten in its current campaign against a neighbour because the neighbour had trained men of wisdom as well as technologists. The country to which I am referring had only trained technologists and, therefore, broadly speaking, they had men who knew how to make things but did not know what to have made. This is a critical distinction. On this point, I am not losing sight of—and I feel sure that I carry both sides of the House with me in this—the need and value of technical education and the parlous need for many more engineers and technicians. But I was glad to see in Montreal that the wisdom of training administrators, leaders and others in the humanities was recognised.

That is fair enough, but what about other aspects of Commonwealth education? Only a day or two ago I received a letter from a leading schoolmaster in Australia. As I have not his permission to quote from the letter, I cannot identify him, but he is a person who is well known and respected in Australia and he is also known over here. On Commonwealth education, he writes: Many of us in the Headmasters' Conference of Australia have strong views: every time one of us goes to England he harangues the Headmasters' Conference on the subject of the exchange of masters and the importance of English people taking an interest in Australia. I do not know if this does very much good: we certainly find difficulty in getting our own masters over to England for experience. We feel that English schools should be glad to have people from our schools in Australia: they are not completely outlandish or incompetent and usually they do very well indeed in English schools. What we need is to get our young men to England for a year or two;…It is of tremendous value if they can have a year or two abroad and return here: it is far more valuable than getting Englishmen out here. He goes on: My colleagues managed to achieve some success in placing young men by going over to England themselves on leave and bullying a few English colleagues. No doubt that is what I shall do when I visit England next summer. I trust that these words will be read in HANSARD by the Commonwealth Relations Office, because as the educational conference of the Commonwealth planned for next year approaches, the exchange of schoolmasters within the Commonwealth may assume very considerable importance.

I was impressed by a statement in paragraph 53 of the Montreal final act, which reads: The Commonwealth countries agreed that their aim would be to develop understanding of their objectives. It is certainly long overdue. Is there not a strong case for a concerted Commonwealth effort to develop Commonwealth self-consciousness of its nature, being and purpose? For example, is there any reason why we should not have a popular version of the Montreal Conference Report, illustrated with diagrams, maps, and so on, in the way that we have a popular version of the economic White Paper every year? I have every reason to believe that such a document from a United Kingdom angle is already being prepared which will no doubt make evident how much Britain did at the Montreal Conference.

But surely what we need is a popular publication, cleared by all the Commonwealth Governments, issued in their name and made available for sale cheaply in all Commonwealth countries where those of our 660 million fellow Commonwealth citizens who are literate can read about the Commonwealth, as they very seldom do at the moment. Is there any reason why this admirable little book, "The Commonwealth in Brief", published by the Central Office of Information in London and full of the most useful facts, should not be reproduced in a cheap popular illustrated edition and sold on bookstalls throughout the Commonwealth?

I was much interested to learn that an illustrated account of the journey made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister through the Commonwealth early this year is either in preparation or has been prepared and will be made available to United Kingdom Information Offices overseas. I think that is worth while; but what about the journey we are about to witness of the Canadian Prime Minister, who is going on a great Commonwealth tour? These are vivid Commonwealth events. Is there any reason why the Commonwealth should not exploit them jointly in the interest of awakening Commonwealth self-consciousness? It will be said that it is not for Britain to publish something on behalf of Canada. But Britain has always taken the initiative in Commonwealth affairs and it seems to me wholly proper that we should suggest to the Canadians that, if they wished it, we would gladly try to bring out an account of Prime Minister Diefenbaker's journey, for popular distribution anywhere in the Commonwealth where there is a sale for it.

I was much interested the other day in a letter from a New Zealander who asked why we had not a Commonwealth Information Office. Of course, one gave the obvious answer that there is no single Government with the responsibility to take charge of such an office, but he wrote back—again, I have not his permission to quote the letter, and I therefore cannot disclose his name—in the following terms: A good example of the kind of organisation in mind, on a small scale, is the Public Relations Group which covered the Royal Tour of the Commonwealth in 1953–54. The group comprised representatives of commercial and official information services, mainly Press, film and radio, and although it naturally varied in composition from country to country, it remained basically the same in that all members of the Group worked together with one object—to get the story of the tour to the greatest number of people in the shortest possible time. I think that this would he a good pattern for a Commonwealth Information Service, based on co-operation between all its members and working with a single aim—to tell the Commonwealth story in terms that people everywhere can understand. He suggested that each Commonwealth country in the service should agree to provide an office and working facilities for regional headquarters staffs of a certain number of people. I hope that this thought, coming from a great-hearted New Zealander who tells me that he has had 25 years in the business of public information, will be considered seriously in the Commonwealth Relations Office. Perhaps before the debate is over we may hear a word or two from that Department about it.

The Montreal Conference was primarily about economics, and we are told that there is to be further study of ways of sustaining or supporting the prices of primary products. I refer to paragraph 44 of the final act. It would be fatal to assume—as was assumed by some members of the Commonwealth at that Conference, and the assumption even found its way into the final act—that China and the U.S.S.R. will wish to spike their own guns in order to be helpful to us about the prices of primary commodities. It is worth noting that Academician Varga, whose estimates have considerable weight in the Kremlin, now believes that the capitalist world is going into its longest and deepest slump for a couple of generations.

There are various vague allusions in the final act to the disposal of surpluses and, in particular, of food surpluses. May we, before the debate is over, hear from the Government a little more of what they think about the idea of a Commonwealth Food Bank which would purchase surpluses and hold them against rising prices or, alternatively, arrange for disposal to needy countries like India of Ghana, which would in turn pay in counterpart funds to be earmarked for the purchase of capital equipment elsewhere in the Commonwealth? There are many difficulties and problems about such a scheme, which seems to have been raised by the Canadians at Montreal but which did not find its way into the final communiqué. May we have some information about that before the debate ends? May we have some information on the Government's views about Lt.-Col. St. Clare Grondona's widely publicised and very detailed scheme for dealing with Commonwealth surpluses?

We are assured in the final act that the real cure for low or uncertain raw material prices is stable markets. One thing which is obvious about the Commonwealth is that the cure for many economic ills is stable as well as expanding markets. In parenthesis, it must be noted that not only is the Commonwealth population rising sensationally every year but so also is its wealth. Many statistics are available in India, Pakistan, many Colonies in Africa, and in Canada and Australia, which all show that although the population is rising fast, and in India and Pakistan very fast, the gross national product is overall rising faster still.

The Commonwealth is already an expanding market, but it it does not protect its own interests by the simple and traditional resort to the tariff weapon, then we shall possibly find this wealth seeping away. One of the remarkable features of Montreal is that the merit of the preference system was formally recognised. Indeed, we are told not once but several times in the communiqué that the Commonwealth Governments recognise the value of preferences, although they are not prepared at this moment to extend them. Why not? If their value is asserted and confirmed, is there some Reason—perhaps a political reason or perhaps some consideration of American likes and dislikes—which makes it impolitic at this moment to extend them further?

We are confronted with a crisis in our relations with Europe and with the refusal of at least one member of the European Common Market to agree to a Free Trade Area, and it may well be that shortly we shall be forced into something like an exchange of preferences with the other eleven partners of O.E.E.C.

Could we be told why it was that at Montreal the preference system was thus damned with faint praise? It was given a pat on the back and then put away. If we want stable markets and secure prices, they must be protected markets. Could we be told more about the proposed studies of the Commonwealth Bank project that are to follow the Montreal Conference?

I heartily congratulate the Government on the Gracious Speech, on their choice of priorities, in putting the Commonwealth first and in giving us a guide to their thinking about the Commonwealth. But I and others will watch the Government closely as well as support them. We want to see deeds as well as words, and we trust that we shall see them. I urge the Government to press on and to keep a wary eye for opportunities of expanding Commonwealth influence both economically, through taking the initiative in world affairs on behalf of and with the support of the Commonwealth, and in certain political contexts. It would do a disservice to be too precise, but there are possible opportunities in East and West Africa as well as in North-Western Europe. I cannot help reminding the Government, and the Commonwealth Relations Office in particular, of the words of Field Marshal Smuts in 1917: The Commonwealth is a dynamic evolving system always going forward to new destinies. Perish the Government which neglects to advance that thought and all praise for the Prime Minister who does.